Functional and Comfortable Outdoor Spaces for Year-Round Entertaining

From gauzy, open-air cabanas to full-scale pool houses, experts share options for year-round backyard enjoyment. 

(Above) Photograph by Phil Johnson

If the past few years have taught us anything, it’s that the backyard and poolscape is a critical extension of the home. Having a beautiful, functional, and comfortable outdoor space for entertaining, relaxing, and spending time with family and friends adds value to your home and makes spending time in your backyard feel like a mini vacation.  

Photograph by Phil Johnson

But on days when the sun’s scorching rays are too much, there’s a light drizzle, or it’s a little too chilly to be outside, the backyard might sit unoccupied. 

“We’re seeing a lot of people wanting to have that stay-home vacation kind of feel, where their backyard accommodate them like a vacation would accommodate them and with that, people are always asking for shade,” says Mitchell Knapp, president of Scenic Landscaping, president of Tranquility Pools, and partner in Tapestry Landscape Architecture.

Trex pergolas are made from either aluminum or aluminum reinforced cellular PVC. Courtesy of the builders/manufacturers

Luckily, there are lots of options for providing coverage from the elements, from gauzy, open-air cabanas to full-scale pool houses, that allow you to enjoy your backyard rain or shine. 

Easy and breezy

For coverage that’s easy and breezy (literally), opt for cabanas, sun sails, or large, permanent umbrellas. One of the most popular of those options are cabanas, which are open-sided, tent-like structures that often have curtains or drapes on the sides that can be more mobile than other options, like pergolas, says Linnzy Foster, designer at Presidential Pools, Spas & Patio in Arizona. 

“Cabanas have a much softer appeal,” agrees Bethany Perez, brand manager for Trex. 

Leslie Chapus, co-founder and VP of Azenco Outdoor in Florida, says that cabanas are often placed over loungers and other seating areas, but typically don’t have features like electrical or lighting. 

Another soft and breezy option are large, resort-style umbrellas that are far larger and offer more coverage than the typical deck umbrella.

“The use of large-scale, high-end umbrellas is popular,” Knapp says. “We’ve seen people permanently mount them in the ground instead just putting them on a stand.”

Foster says this kind of covering can be added on or near a pool’s Baja step, allowing people to lounge in the pool under shade. 

“They can pop an umbrella and be submerged in the pool and have some shade,” he says. “You can have a nice little pop of color with an umbrella.” 

Sun sails—sail-like pieces of fabric that are pulled taut over a seating area to create shade—are another nice option, especially if they’re waterproof and have UV-protection.


For coverage that’s a bit more substantial and customizable, but still offers an open-air experience, homeowners often opt for pergolas, ramadas, or gazebos. Like other elements of outdoor living, their popularity has soared recently. 

Photograph by Heather Knapp

“I’ve seen more gazebos going in the last three years than I’ve seen going in in the last ten years,” says Knapp.

All three are similar in terms of coverage, but slightly different when it comes to style and aesthetics, with gazebos and ramadas having fully covered roofs and pergolas tending to have roofs that are slatted and open to the sky.  

Tranquility Pools creates a stay-at-home vacation feel complete with ample shade. Photograph by Heather Knapp

However, not all pergolas have to stay open to the sky all the time. 

Chapus says Azenco Outdoor’s most popular pergola model has a motorized louvered roof that can open and close, allowing it to allow in sunlight and airflow when desired or closing it to protect from sun or rain. It has integrated gutters, too. 

In addition, pergolas can be customizable, too. For instance, they can vary in size and height; be freestanding to create seating and activity zones throughout the space; or be attached to the home to make the pergola an extension of the building. Homeowners can also add electricity; screens to keep out insects; media walls or outdoor televisions; and accessory beams to attach features like add heaters, fans, or misters. In fact, fans and heaters can help homeowners in climates with four seasons extend the life of their outdoor space. 

Materials are also shifting on these structures. Instead of wood, which needs constant maintenance and will eventually deteriorate, homeowners and designers are shifting toward materials that can withstand the elements and last decades. 

For instance, Azenco Outdoor’s pergolas are made from powder-coated aluminum, which Chapus calls “the most durable solution to resist the elements,” including rain, sun, and salt. They’re available in a variety of finishes, textures, and colors, including a wood grain finish. 

Trex pergolas are made from either aluminum or aluminum reinforced cellular PVC.

“We’re seeing people using aluminum, especially on the coast, because of its ability to hold up in weather really well with salt and wind and storms,” Perez says.

Pergolas can also add additional decorative elements, too. For instance, Foster is working on a project that’s adding a pergola that’s slightly cantilevered into the entry of the pool and that has a water feature called a rain sheer at the edge of the pergola.

“You have a nice little rain feature on the top of the pergola into the pool,” he says.

Full-scale coverage

For those with the space and budget, pool houses are popular and are growing more popular every year. In fact, Knapp says over the past three years, he’s seen a 50% increase in pool houses.

“Most people that are doing it right now understand we’re here for the long haul,” he says of people making their homes places that they want to spend all their time. Homeowners can take their staycations to the next level by making mini getaway spots right in their backyards.

Pool houses can range from simple screenhouses with just a space for a picnic table or a changing area, to miniature houses that match the aesthetic and style of the main house, complete with full kitchens, bathrooms, and living areas. 

“These structures have become small houses,” Knapp says. 

The key features of pool houses have changed, too, Knapp says. Whereas they used to be more kitchen/pop-up bar focused, pool houses today emphasize more social elements, such as large dining areas. Another nice feature? A washer and dryer for wet towels, bathing suits, and beach blankets. 

Whether you choose an umbrella, pergola, or pool house, protection from the elements is a critical part of outdoor living. If it’s sunny, cloudy, or anything in between, you can enjoy your backyard all the time, rain or shine.,,,   

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